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Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Tuesday, 12 August 2008 10:16 UK

Philippine troops retake villages

A boy salvages belongings from the ashes of his home in Takepan, North Cotabato province, on Tuesday, after it was razed by retreating rebels
Rebels have looted and burned some of the villagers' homes

The Philippine military says it has "liberated" five more villages from rebel control, as the fighting in North Cotabato province continues.

Rebel commanders have confirmed that their forces are withdrawing to camps in adjacent Maguindanao province.

But if the government claim is correct, it would mean eight villages remain under rebel control.

The latest outbreak of violence in the southern Philippines has driven nearly 160,000 people from their homes.

Government forces bombed rebel-held farms and villages in North Cotabato on Sunday and Monday, after rebels failed to heed a deadline to leave villages in the province.

On Monday, military chiefs said they had regained control of two of 15 occupied villages.

The province neighbours an autonomous Muslim zone established in 1996, and was envisaged to form part of an expanded zone provisionally agreed by the government and rebels.

But the deal angered the many Christian communities in the province and was blocked - pending further hearings - by the Supreme Court last week.

'Less resistance'

Maj Armand Rico, an army spokesman on the southern island of Mindanao, where the fighting is taking place, said soldiers had been meeting less resistance from rebels.

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He said a further five villages - out of an initial 15 rebel strongholds - had now been "liberated".

"Our troops are still clearing eight villages," he was quoted as telling reporters.

Military sources say soldiers are also scouring homes to try to prevent civilians coming into contact with left-over mines, bombs or grenades.

Two leading rebels in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) - vice-chair for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar, and spokesman Eid Kabalu - were quoted as saying rebel forces were withdrawing.

"We expect fighting to end by tomorrow [Wednesday]," Mr Kabalu told Reuters.

"We expect the situation to normalise."

But a military spokesman warned that force would continue to be used until rebels had vacated the area, and air and ground strikes are reportedly still being used against the rebels.

Basilan bloodshed

The number of people displaced by the fighting has now swelled to 159,123, said government offices.

Philippine police patrol the village of Takepan, North Cotabato province, on Tuesday, after it was vacated by rebels
The military says operations will go on until rebels have completely withdrawn

An outbreak of fighting has also been reported in Tipo-Tipo, in the southern island province of Basilan - but it is not clear whether it is connected to the confrontation in North Cotabato.

At least 15 rebels, two civilians and a soldier are reported dead in that fighting, according to the Philippine military.

The rebels are said to have been angered at the fresh setbacks to efforts to find a peaceful resolution to their decades-old rebellion, which is estimated to have claimed at least 120,000 lives.

But competition over the region's rich resources also lies behind the renewed violence.


SEE ALSO
Thousands flee Philippine clashes
11 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippine rebels leave villages
08 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Manila warns 'occupying' rebels
07 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Court blocks Philippine land deal
04 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippine rebel talks reach deal
28 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: The Philippines
12 Feb 08 |  Country profiles
Guide to the Philippines conflict
10 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific


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